The Tri-State area is the new Rome. Since 2004, three of America's wealthiest states -- Connecticut, New Jersey and New York -- have been wracked by devastating political scandals. In 2004, John G. Rowland, a rising Republican superstar, resigned from his post as governor of Connecticut after admitting to tax fraud and conspiracy to commit "honest services mail fraud," which is a fancy way of saying Rowland was improperly using his influence to make money and get free stuff. Rowland spent ten months in federal prison for his transgressions.
Only a few months later, New Jersey's governor, Jim McGreevey, revealed that he was engaging in a "consensual affair" with a male employee. (Considering his wife ostensibly did not "consent" to his deception, McGreevey's conduct seemed particularly distasteful, even if overtones of homophobia characterized the media's coverage of the scandal. However, a former aide accused McGreevey's wife, Dinos Matos McGreevey, of not only being aware of her husband's sexual preferences, but getting in on the fun herself.) America's first openly gay governor resigned amid a fury of outrage over his behavior on both sides of the political aisle.
But New York always has to do everything better than its smaller, less important neighbors, right? Eliot Spitzer -- the self-proclaimed "steamroller" who built his reputation on his strict sense of morality and justice -- trumped both Rowland and McGreevey when it was revealed that he enjoyed the company of high-priced prostitutes. Spitzer's heavy-handed, holier-than-thou approach to politics all but ensured that he would not survive a scandal of this nature and magnitude. With characteristic schadenfreude, the press discovered nearly every unsavory detail; it took less than 24 hours before the media "revealed" the true identity of the prostitute that led to Spitzer's downfall. (The woman -- Ashley Alexandra Dupré -- is now a MySpace celebrity.)
The proliferation of sex and corruption scandals in the Tri-State area is troubling. Many of these men (and they are mostly, if not all, men) engage in morally egregious behavior that is repugnant to ordinary Americans. The Rowland-McGreevey-Spitzer trifecta is a particularly concentrated -- and particularly disturbing -- illustrations of the ways in which American politics is often steeped in corruption.
But are we paying undue attention to these sex scandals? The argument is often made that Americans ought to care less about blue dresses and blow jobs and more about our country's most pressing concerns like education, health care and the war in Iraq. The sentiment underlying this claim is undoubtedly true -- policy is more important than the sexual proclivities of our "esteemed" leaders. It is regrettable that Americans probably know more about Dupré than they do about the platforms of the candidates competing for the presidency. Why can't we just ignore the steamy stuff and focus on whether or not a politician is good at his job?
The problem is that this argument sets up a false binary between public and private morality. These are not completely separate categories. Part of the reason the conflict in Iraq inflicted so much damage to the American psyche is that our legitimacy as the world's only superpower was severely undermined by the deceptive practices of the Bush administration.
Similarly, politicians that violate their most basic commitments in their private lives reduce their moral legitimacy, undermining their ability to govern effectively. We ought to be more concerned about policy in this country, but that doesn't mean that we should stop caring about whether or not a politician can exercise sound judgement in his or her most significant personal relationships.